Last week I travelled to Haiti as part of ActionAid’s emergency response team in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which struck on 4th October, killing hundreds of people and destroying thousands of homes and livelihoods.
Families are in urgent need of help but I also witnessed their incredible strength and resilience in the face of adversity, especially the women ActionAid supports who are leading our response. This really stood out for me when we visited the remote mountain village of Jacquet, in Grand Anse district, one of the worst affected areas.
Our local Haitian staff, who have been working round the clock delivering emergency food and water supplies, were there to meet with a local women’s group – Femmes en Action (Women in Action) – that ActionAid has been supporting through our local partner KPGA for over ten years. Almost the entire village have lost their homes and are sheltering in a school, made of concrete, and the only structure still standing. We were there to talk to the women’s group we support, and other members of the community, and ask how we can best support them.
Traditionally, Haitian women are not treated equally to men. They are excluded from decision-making on all levels – both in the family and in wider society – and experience high levels of violence. That is why ActionAid puts women leaders at the centre of our emergency response, to ensure that women’s specific needs are met and to use it as an opportunity for them to show their leadership skills and influence the future of their community.
Food is a right
Yolette Etienne, ActionAid Haiti Country Director, addressed the villagers. She spoke not of despair but of resilience. She said: “We Haitians have a strength inside of us and there's nothing that can shatter that."
We help you not just as charity but because food is a right. Clean water is a right. Protection is a right.
She continued: "We are here to support you. It is important you know ActionAid really respects people, we are here to help but with respect."
"We know getting enough money is a challenge but together we can help each other. We help you not just as charity but because food is a right. Clean water is a right. Protection is a right. And we are here to help you get those rights.”
Everyone nodded and clapped in enthusiastic agreement.
Haitians pulling together
Joseph Elsa, a coordinator of the women's group, had received leadership training from ActionAid before the hurricane. She explained to us how the full force of the hurricane had hit the village and how, when it did, those leadership skills were put into action. “There are only two houses left standing and most people have only the clothes on their backs,” she said.
“But families have come together to help each other. We organised collections. Each family has pooled together whatever money they had into a central pot. The money has been used to buy food for everyone.”
Jean Gerard, a local teacher and pastor, also told us how the community have pulled together through the crisis.
“On the first night villagers went from house to house carrying the most vulnerable - the elderly, the sick and small children - to the safety of the shelter.”
Protecting women from violence
The risk of women being assaulted always increases after disasters like Hurricane Matthew, but one woman explained how, thanks to the training provided by ActionAid, the women knew how to protect themselves and their daughters. For example, she told us how they had ensured everyone stayed safe in the shelter by organising families with small children to sleep in one room, single women in another and single men in another.
Another woman leader, Joanna, proudly told us how because of the women’s rights training that ActionAid had trained her to deliver, in the last ten years they had completely eradicated violence against women in their village.
“Because of our training, the men respect women now. Before every man beat his wife. It was normal. But now – nobody. To convince the men was difficult, but we changed the way they see us.”
Seeing how our existing programme work in this community had helped these women achieve this and protect themselves was an amazing thing to witness.
Before every man beat his wife. It was normal. But now – nobody.
As I listened to the women speaking I was struck not only by how urgent their needs were, but by the incredible camaraderie. When humans have nothing it is so easy to just look out for oneself. But I saw none of that here. Everyone was helping each other, working together and trying, even in the toughest of times, to move forwards as best they could, and it all stemmed from the solidarity and leadership of the women.
Food, clean water and shelter
The families here made clear to us that what they need most now is food, clean water and shelter. Without that there is a risk that diseases like cholera will spread, putting survivors at even greater risk.
But, as always, we also discussed longer-term solutions and reassured the community that we would continue supporting them to rebuild both their homes and livelihoods. Many of the villagers survive on small subsistence farming but their crops have been washed away.
One woman explained how if ActionAid could provide them with seeds they could plant these straight away and have a sustainable food source within three to four months. So that is what we have agreed to provide.
As one woman explained, “Once we have a roof over our heads and we have crops again we can sell them at market. But without that we can’t do anything. This is what we need from you.”
Support our Hurricane Matthew emergency appeal
Jacquet is just one of several communities across Haiti that ActionAid will continue to support, through our local partners and trained women leaders. Over two million people have been affected by Hurricane Matthew, 800,000 of whom are in extreme need without food, shelter, or clean water.
ActionAid has already been distributing emergency supplies but this is just the start. In the coming weeks and months we will be providing villages like Jacquet with seeds to grow food, money to rebuild their homes, safe spaces for women and livelihood support - to help them earn an income again and get back on their feet.
Led by these inspirational women who ActionAid supports, I have every confidence that these communities have the strength to come back from this, and to come back stronger. But they cannot do it alone. Born into extreme poverty – exacerbated by weak governance and previous disasters such as the 2010 earthquake – Haitians urgently need international support in order to recover.
By donating to our emergency appeal you can help us continue this life-saving support and enable more people to rebuild their lives.
Photos: Dylan Roberts